Bi­o­log­i­cal war­fare

Lu­cile Hadz­i­halilovic’s new film will sub­vert all you thought you knew about pro­cre­ation, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the wa­ter. Pre­pare tobe amazed and dis­com­bob­u­lated. As Lu­cile Hadz­i­halilovic’s trans­fix­ing new film Evo­lu­tion opens (see op­po­site page), 10-year-old Ni­co­las (Max Bra­bant) hap­pens upon a dead body in the wa­ters sur­round­ing the idyl­lic is­land where he lives with his mother (Julie-Marie Par­men­tier from Shei­tan and The Snows of Kil­i­man­jaro).

In­deed, their re­mote sea­side com­mu­nity is en­tirely peo­pled by women and pre-ado­les­cent boys. The mys­te­ri­ous pop­u­la­tion all visit the is­land’s hos­pi­tal, a fa­cil­ity where the boys are all sub­jected to med­i­cal “treat­ments”. What ex­actly is go­ing on here? Why are there no adult males? What is that strange indigo med­i­ca­tion that Max re­ceives ev­ery day? And can a sym­pa­thetic young nurse ( The White Rib­bon’s Rox­ane Du­ran) al­low for Max to es­cape what­ever dread fate awaits him?

Thean­swers will­sub­vert ev­ery­thing you thought you knew about re­pro­duc­tion. Male preg­nancy, it soon tran­spires, is the least weird as­pect of Evo­lu­tion’s sci­ence fic­tion. How on earth does Hadz­i­halilovic come up with this stuff?

“The first idea was the male preg­nancy and the hos­pi­tal,” says the writer-di­rec­tor. “At the very be­gin­ning the movie was more about the hos­pi­tal and the idea of the mother bring­ing the boy there. And that hor­ror idea of the boy hav­ing some­thing in­side his belly. I had for­got­ten that when I was 10, I went to hos­pi­tal for an op­er­a­tion. It was the first time in my life when my body was bring touched by adults I didn’t know. And be­cause I had pain in my ab­domen there were ques­tions if I was hav­ing my pe­riod. That seemed very mys­te­ri­ous. I guess that hos­pi­tal and be­com- ing a woman be­came linked in my mind.”

I won­der – as all view­ers will – what kind of con­ver­sa­tions she had with her young lead, Max?

“He was not so young – he was 13 years old – when we made the film,” laughs Hadz­i­halilovic. “I was wait­ing for his ques­tions. But I think he didn’t care so much about the script. He just wanted the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in the film. The two ques­tions he did ask were: will I have to get real in­jec­tions? And who is go­ing to play the girl? For him the kiss was the most cru­cial scene. The other boys all said: ‘Oh, you’re kiss­ing a naked girl.’ I guess it was the first time he was kiss­ing an older girl. And once we were shoot­ing, all our con­ver­sa­tions were more about the dis­ci­pline of how to act with the cam­era.”

It’s tempt­ing to see Evo­lu­tion as an in­ver­sion of Hadz­i­halilovic’s equally mes­meris­ing de­but fea­ture, In­no­cence. That film, a loose re­work­ing of FrankWedekind’s novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bod­ily Ed­u­ca­tion of Young Girls, fol­lowed a group of young girls who, ar­riv­ing in a cof­fin, were se­questeredin a re­mote dor­mi­tory and trained for sin­is­ter, am­bigu­ous fu­ture roles. Does Evo­lu­tion tell us that we raise young men just as cal­lously as we raise young women?

“They are both about the hor­ror of pu­berty,” nods the film­maker. “I don’t think that ei­ther film has a sin­gle in­ter­pre­ta­tion. I liked that the women were the threat in the new movie. But as a child you’re not so con­cerned about girls and boys. That hap­pens more with mat­u­ra­tion. I mainly wanted to find a way to tell a story in im­ages, not like a straight nar­ra­tive. I don’t want to tell ev­ery­thing. There are al­ready too many films like that. And not all of them are good.”


Hadz­i­halilovic was born in Lyon in 1961 to Bos­nian par­ents but was raised in Morocco. She stud­ied fine art, then film-mak­ing at the In­sti­tut des Hautes Études Ciné­matographiques in Paris. Her grad­u­a­tion film, La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), ex­plored child abuse from the view­point of a young girl. This hard-hit­ting short and Hadz­i­halilovic’s col­lab­o­ra­tions with the di­rec­tor (and her do­mes­tic part­ner) Gas­par Noé en­sured she was in­tro­duced to global au­di­ences as part of the New French Ex­trem­ism. He was a cam­era op­er­a­tor on her early shorts; she edited his ter­ri­fy­ing 1998 de­but, I Stand Alone.

“It’s a com­pli­ment, yes?” she says. “We worked on each other’s films but I think our films are very dif­fer­ent now.”

In per­son, the sur­pris­ingly jolly Hadz­i­halilovic doesn’t seem to fit neatly with ei­ther New French Ex­trem­ism or, in­deed, with the cere­bral, hyp­notic in­no­va­tions of In­no­cence or Evo­lu­tion.

“That’s why it took so long to make Evo­lu­tion,” she laughs. “I thoughtit­would beeasier than In­no­cence be­cause it was less ab­stract, but it was still too hard to ex­plain. It’s a bit like film fan­tas­tique or sci­ence fic­tion. But it’s not ei­ther. It was hard for pro­duc­ers and fi­nanciers to get what it was. If I have a film fam­ily, it’s prob­a­bly Peter Strick­land ( Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio, The Duke of Bur­gundy), or Hélène Cat­tet and Bruno Forzani ( Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears). Eraser­head had a big im­pact on me. The Ital­ian films of Dario Ar­gento. That’s not ex­actly right, be­cause maybe I’m more re­al­is­tic. Maybe Jean Pain­levé films are the clos­est thing to what I do. I’m just happy peo­ple re­act so well to the film now and seem to un­der­stand it!”

Lu­cile Hadz­i­halilovic “The first idea was the male preg­nancy and the hos­pi­tal” They are both about the hor­ror of pu­berty . . . I liked that the women were the threat in the new movie

EVO­LU­TION Di­rected by Lu­cile Hadz­i­halilovic. Star­ring Max Bre­bant, Rox­ane Du­ran, Julie-Marie Par­men­tier. Club, IFI, Dublin, 82 min Let me try to do what Lu­cile Hadz­i­halilovic al­most cer­tainly doesn’t want us to do and ex­plain what’s go­ing on in her lat­est, wholly won­der­ful mind-wrecker. Women are sea crea­tures. Boys are, when ap­proach­ing pu­berty, treated as if in dan­ger from some chronic dis­ease. Men don’t seem to ex­ist. Food is sludge.

All this might be fem­i­nist me­taphor, but, as a stun­ning last shot clar­i­fies, there is a world else­where that looks a lit­tle more like our own. So, maybe the night­mare is just a night­mare. Some­times a mass of women that comes to­gether to form a writhing quasi-kraken is no more or no less than it seems to be.

Still, Evo­lu­tion does ap­pear to be firmly set in al­le­gor­i­cal space. Shot in Lan­zarote, the film takes place in a time­less vil­lage that a gi­ant thumb looks to have smeared across the black hills in clean chalk. The largely de­serted streets sug­gest the util­i­tar­ian sur­re­al­ism of Gior­gio de Chirico’s paint­ings.

Ni­co­las (Max Bre­bant), the young pro­tag­o­nist, oc­cu­pies a stark in­te­rior with his fe­male carer – prob­a­bly not re­ally his mother – that could serve as the set­ting for one of Beck­ett’s more se­vere plays. (Note how the ta­ble at which he con­sumes his wormy goo faces the wall.) Hadz­i­halilovic could not make it any clearer that she is bring­ing us to an ar­che­typal Nowhere.

Then again, much of Evo­lu­tion is so stub­bornly dark that al­most any­thing could be go­ing on in its Chiaroscuro corners. Manuel Da­cosse, the gifted cin­e­matog­ra­pher whose bril­liant work on The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears al­most made that film watch­able, is al­lowed to take full ad­van­tage of the wide screen and he re­sponds bril­liantly.

Few films have moved from the macro­scopic to the mi­cro­scopic with such en­thu­si­asm. A long shot of the bay al­lows just one tiny pink fig­ure to break up the beau­ti­ful murk. An in­tense close-up of a minute sea crea­ture ad­vanc­ing on a hu­man gland plays like a David At­ten­bor­ough broad­cast from Hierony­mus Bosch Is­land.

All of which pe­riph­eral dis­cus­sion can only de­lay anal­y­sis of the plot for so long. It is 12 years since Hadz­i­halilovic’s pre­vi­ous fea­ture, the un­for­get­table In­no­cence. In that time she has con­trib­uted to the script for En­ter the Void, di­rected by her hus­band Gas­par Noé, and shot one im­pres­sive short, but her dis­tinc­tive cin­e­matic voice has, oth­er­wise, re­mained un­heard.

Evo­lu­tion is more opaque than In­no­cence, but con­sid­er­able more dis­ci­plined than En­ter the Void. What hap­pens is puz­zling, but the events are as con­fi­dently ar­ranged as those in a Kafka short story.

We be­gin with gor­geous un­der­sea fo­liage os­cil­lat­ing in the shift­ing tide. Ni­co­las swims down to the seafloor, where he seems to en­counter the body of a boy. Later he is fed re­volt­ing food and given medicine by the per­son who might be his mother. He sneaks out at night and finds the women of the vil­lage

Max Bre­bant seeks his ori­gins in Evo­lu­tion

writhing ma­ni­a­cally by the sea.

We sub­se­quently dis­cover that some (maybe all?) have valves down their back like sea crea­tures. Are they form­ing a col­lec­tive beast?

Ni­co­las is taken to a hos­pi­tal where the young nurses dig into his stom­ach, im­plant some­thing sus­pi­cious (not to say “fishy”) and set to mon­i­tor­ing him with a dull, steam­punk scan­ning de­vice.

There is some­thing of Shane Car­ruth’s Up­stream Colour in Hadz­i­halilovic’s work. But Evo­lu­tion is al­to­gether more fan­tas­tic and other-worldly than that coldly log­i­cal slice of ev­ery­day sur­re­al­ism.

Taken as a con­cise fa­ble from a weird world, it works rather won­der­fully. What kicks the film into the es­sen­tial is, how­ever, its con­stant ad­ja­cency to mean­ing. That is to say, it is for­ever on the point of mak­ing per­fect sense, but never quite makes the fi­nal leap.

It’s a bit like life that way.

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